Why I Gave Up On TiVo. A Requiem in Three Parts.

It's hard to write this post. I've been working on it, off and on, for quite a while. You see, I'm an unabashed TiVo fanboy. For about a decade, we bought almost every box TiVo ever produced. We owned their stock. We even picked up TiVos for our parents. We were TiVo evangelists.

And for the first time in 12 years, there isn't a single piece of TiVo hardware in our house.

How did this happen? Well, gradually, and then suddenly.

This is going to be a three-part post. Today we focus on 2002 through about 2010 - the rise of TiVo.

During this time, the DVR went from a niche component for techies and early adopters - to mass adoption, making it almost a required part of the American home theater.

And TiVo went from a niche consumer electronics maker - to a name synonymous with video recording in general. In the Nineties, we'd ask someone to "tape" a show. In the 2000's, we asked them to "TiVo" it. 

Part 1: The Rise

Our personal TiVo story starts back in 2002.  I picked up a TiVo Series 1 box and paid for a lifetime subscription. 

Series 1 

It wasn't the easiest thing to integrate into our system. Early TiVos didn't play well with digital cable. 

This was pre-CableCARD, so the TiVo had to sit next to our Comcast cable box.

If the TiVo wanted to change the channel, it needed to change the channel on the cable box - so you'd run IR blasters from the back of the TiVo to the front of the cable box - they'd peel-and-stick to the IR receptor. 

It wasn't an elegant solution. I hated it. 

First off, there were wires all over the front of your components. Secondly, the Motorola box was notoriously slow on the uptake in receiving remote commands - and the TiVo had no way of knowing if it had successfully changed the channel. 

While it worked more often than not, there were many, many times when a channel change would fail, and the TiVo would record the wrong show. 

Even when watching live TV, there were times when you'd be changing the channel using the TiVo guide, the attempt would fail, and you'd have to try again, and again. Bad times. 

But it was still a major leap forward. This was early 2000's, so we were living in the final years of VHS -- people simply didn't record or timeshift programming. We watched it when it aired, or we missed it. 

TiVo meant that we were free from worrying about TV schedules. It was awesome. 

Series 2

When the TiVo Series 2 was released, we sold the Series 1 on eBay (the lifetime subscription went with it) moved up immediately. 

No more hardwire telephone cord required - we could use a wifi adapter! And there were going to be apps - like TivoToGo, and the Home Media Engine!

In retrospect, the Series 2 and its wifi adapter offers the first instance of the endless compromises that would be TiVo's hallmark. Why, in 2013, is Tivo still releasing hardware that requires a USB wifi adapter? Almost everything in my house is wifi connected, but my DVR requires a dongle?

When shopping for a Series 2, we decided to go with the Toshiba SD-H400 -- a hybrid DVD player and 80-hour TiVo. 

This was a pretty great TiVo. 80 hours! And a pretty great DVD player, too. It was 2004, and we had no complaints. 

I mean, other than the fact that the TiVo couldn't record HD video. But at the outset, no one could record HD video. This Tivo would record an SD, letterboxed version of whatever HD content you were attempting to record.

Which was acceptable, if a bit annoying.

And which became unacceptably annoying the minute that Comcast started offering an HD DVR. 

TiVo offered a 2-tuner DVR, which we purchased, but it was still just standard-def. (And again, external wi-fi). 

Fortunately, TiVo's finest hour was just around the corner.

Series 3

It was 2006. It was pricey, but it was almost perfect. The TiVo Series 3.  We bought it in early 2007.

By that time, TiVo wasn't offering Product Lifetime Service anymore.

So we bought a 3-year subscription - I assumed we'd sell the box before that time, and whatever subscription time remained on the box would boost its value.

This box was beautiful and powerful. OLED screens on the front, to tell you what you were recording. HDMI out! (Or, if it was more your speed, component video and TOSLINK audio out.) 30 hours of HD content.

The build quality was just phenomenal. Really, unlike any other consumer-level products of the day. The front of the box was real brushed metal - not painted plastic. The sides and top were high-gloss, thick, black metal.

The remote control was the new "Glo" remote - backlit.

Of course, TiVo didn't build-in wireless capability. You had to buy a $50 wi-fi dongle. Which, at this point, was becoming somewhat ridiculous. Our cell phones had wi-fi. Our printers had wi-fi. But our $700 DVR didn't?

You could record on 2 tuners simultaneously, while watching a 3rd previously recorded show. And most importantly - 2 CableCARDs. We could finally get rid of the Comcast Motorola box!

The TiVo Series 3 wasn't just a *little bit* better than the 2006-era Comcast cable box. It was exponentially better.

Comcast's UI was awful. Its graphics looked like an 8-bit NES. Its remote control was utterly non-responsive.

It was a very common occurrence to hit a key once, get no response, hit it 2-3 more times... and 5 seconds later, to see the key command show up on screen 5 times.

And they filled it up with advertisements. Even considering that it was the mid-2000s, this was a shockingly bad UI.

I think they just got rid of it last year. Which is almost unfathomable.

But back to TiVo.

The user interface was the same as what we'd known and loved, but now it worked in high-def. And over time, TiVo added new functionality -- Netflix, Amazon Instant, and a slew of other paid content providers.

But after a few years, it became pretty clear that the UI was reaching its limits.

Launching apps wasn't a seamless experience. Netflix, for instance, would require 5-10 seconds of looking at the Netflix logo, followed by a completely different menu font/resolution within the app. 

And the Netflix implementation was pretty awful. You couldn't browse available titles - just your instant queue.

Of course, we expected that improvements were right around the corner. We kept hearing that, anyway.

But years passed. We actually finished our three-year subscription. TiVo had reintroduced Product Lifetime - and gave people like us who had purchased 3-year deals a great deal on moving up to Lifetime.

FOUR years passed. And nothing changed.

(For context - can you imagine if Apple only updated the iPhone every 4 years? They'd still be pushing the iPhone 3G today!)

You could tell that TiVo was planning something. They launched a 'Tivo Search (Beta)' application - which looked beautiful, and worked... well.... it worked okay.

But it looked like the future of TiVo. 

NEXT: Part Two - The Fall


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